salemme pepper
Subscribe to the 150ish Newsletter
About Us

150ish is a free weekly newsletter that brings you all the dish on local food artisans working within 150 miles–more or less–of New York City.

We love to share our passion about great local resources with our friends and families–and 150ish is our way to share that passion with everyone. Each week we feature a food product from our 150ish area: we buy the products, we taste the products, and we only tell you about what we like.

From the latest entrepreneurial food incubators to the unsung classics we've loved for generations, we bring you the best of the boroughs,
the tri-state area,
and beyond-ish.
Forward to a Friend Twitter Pinterest
Tom Salemme picks a peck of his personal peppers

With a little help from his family and friends

April 18, 2013 | Photo Lena Pardo

Francesca’s grandfather had a large backyard garden, and during the summer, the grandchildren followed him around like he was the Pied Piper. They loved to sample all the fruits and vegetables that he grew—and the seat next to him at the dinner table was always prized because he might share a taste of something special. There was always a hot pepper next to Grandpa’s plate, and he would cut it up and add it to his food. When Francesca’s brother Benjamin asked if he could do the same, his grandfather smiled and cut off a small piece of the pepper, which Benjamin popped directly into his mouth. As his eyes watered and steam seemed like it was coming out of his ears, Benjamin continued to eat the pepper as he wasn’t going to let his grandfather out pepper him! Despite the comical introduction, all of the Pardos are big chile fans. Francescas mother continues the tradition of growing the chiles each year. They are hot, but they don't seem to match the heat of the memories of her Grandpa Pardos.
Marisa’s father was also known to drop a hot pepper or two into the Sunday sauce, so when Tom Salemme asked 150ish to try his crushed pepper, he wasn’t dealing with novices.
Here’s the dish. The pepper has been in the Salemme family for generations, but no one can really say where it comes from. All Tom Salemme knows is that his grandparents, who came to Connecticut from Italy, grew it on the family farm. When the farm was sold, they kept the pepper plants, saving the seeds to replant each year. For years Tom bottled the dried, crushed pepper as gifts for friends and relatives. Tiny, red, and fiery hot, the pepper has a flavor all its own—never having tasted anything like it, the family has always called it the Salemme pepper.
Although Tom was constantly told, “You should be selling this,” he resisted—until 2005. But before marketing the pepper, he insisted on taking one final step: “We’d been calling this the Salemme pepper forever, but now we had to know what type of pepper it was.” So a sample was sent to the Chile Pepper Institute at the University of New Mexico. Yes, there really is such a place: Established in 1992, it’s the only international, non-profit organization devoted to education and research related to chile peppers. Word came back that their pepper was indeed a unique variety of chile, one that the Institute had not yet encountered—call it whatever you want, they were told. And oh, by the way, its heat level is 116,000 SHU (that’s Scoville Heat Units). As a comparison, a jalapeño is 2–5,000 SHU; Cayenne and Tabasco, 30–50,000 SHU; Habañeros start at 100,000 SHU.
With certification in hand, Tom—along with sons David and Michael—formed the Salemme Pepper Company in 2006, where Tom took the title of Executive Spice President. Which is not to say that anyone has quit their day jobs yet. A clinical social worker by profession, Tom maintains a private practice in New Haven three days a week, but left his full-time position as director of an AIDS hospice last June. Much of the work at Salemme Pepper continues to depend on an ever-growing army of volunteers.
Tom describes the cultivation of peppers in Connecticut as “challenging. Peppers are notoriously slow growing and we have a short growing season.” So each February about 2,000 seedlings are started in greenhouses, then transplanted in May to local fields—all managed by Joe Arisco of T&D Growers in Cheshire. “Without his help, none of this would happen,” says Tom. In September, friends and family gather to pull the plants, which are then hung to dry. And in October, the fun begins: the annual picking of the peppers.
“Everyone is invited and no one is expected,” Tom says of the one-day event, which takes place in his backyard. What began as a small gathering has now grown to a crowd of about 65 people of all ages. The family provides the beer and wine—and the latex gloves and surgical facemasks required to do the work of pulling the tiny peppers from the dry branches. “We start at 10:00 and just keep going until the beer and wine is gone,” Tom laughs. “We also provide pizza, but lately people have been carrying in homemade dishes—a lot of it made with the pepper.”
“Some years we get a lot of peppers, other years we don’t,” he explains. “A good harvest of 2,200 plants can yield 100 pounds of peppers when all the drying and picking is done. After picking, the peppers are washed and put in the dehydrator, so by the time they’re ground, there’s not much left.” The family does all the bottling themselves.
Francesca and Marisa just about fell over when Tom said each 1-ounce bottle contains about 110 peppers. (“It says 1 ounce on the label, but it’s really 1.25 ounces, because I can’t stand to see the bottle look less than full,” Tom laughs.) During the year, they produce between 600 and 800 bottles, selling the rest of the harvest as ground bulk or whole peppers.
Tom is a lovely man with a gentle laugh and a great sense of humor—and he’s a great ambassador for his product. He mentions that he and a cousin developed a Salemme pepper–flavored potato chip to enter into the recent Lay’s new flavor competition: “We got some garlic-flavored olive oil spray, sprayed it on the chip, and then sprinkled the pepper over it. We didn’t win, but that’s still one tasty chip.” Shake it on popcorn, add it to chocolate cupcake batter, or use it to make chile oil, as they do at the New Haven restaurant 116 Crown.
Talk with John Ginnetti, who owns 116 Crown with his wife, Danielle, and you get a good idea of how Tom has been spreading his magic. “I was eating pizza and noticed that the guy sitting next to me had brought his own crushed pepper. It was Tom. He had a bottle in his jacket pocket and kept sneaking it out. I leaned over and asked him, ‘what’ve you got?’ He gave me the whole story of the pepper and a sample too. I’ve been a customer ever since. He’s a nice, authentic guy who really believes in his product.” John, a master mixologist, has also created a cocktail with Salemme pepper. (Keep checking our Facebook page, we’ll be posting the recipe soon!)
And so, the fan-base of the Salemme pepper grows. One day, Tom gets a call with an order from Kalustyans, the famed spice emporium on Lexington Avenue. “Now they have become my biggest customer—they even order the whole peppers. I have no idea how they heard of us.” The owner of Caseus, a cheese shop and bistro in New Haven, sells the pepper and introduced it to Andre Kreft of Savor, who uses it as the base for his Firefly cookies. Andre told Francesca and Marisa, and so on, and so on (just like Herbal Essence shampoo!).
With an expanding market for a limited supply, Tom is ambivalent about growing the company. “It’s been just a three-person operation, although we couldn’t do it without the help of a lot of volunteers. Because of their help, financially it just about works. But I never did it to make money,” he says. “I would miss the sense of community that, for us, includes everyone from the designer of the labels, to the 50-60-80 people who help pull the plants, hang the plants, and pick the peppers. There’s an absence of community in our lives these days—our neighborhoods, churches, even families aren’t what they used to be. People have been disassociated from their food, but I see that changing. My sons approach food in the same way their grandparents did, and that’s a good thing.”
Salemme Pepper is available in either coarsely or finely crushed versions from
See their website for select retailers in Connecticut and Manhattan.

Double Chocolate Chili Brownie Cookies

It’s almost Cinco de Mayo, which got Francesca and Marisa thinking about the chocolate-chile combination that the Mayans enjoyed. We think these cookies, from Guilty Kitchen are a perfect platform for the distinctive flavor of Salemme pepper, and we’ve substituted it here for the 1 teaspoon of chili powder used in the original recipe. Use a good-quality chocolate and butter; it makes all the difference. And note that the dough rests 24 hours before baking. [Photo courtesy Beth Kirby].
Makes 16 to 18 cookies

1 1/2 cups pastry flour

1 cup good-quality Dutch-process cocoa

1 tsp salt

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 teaspoon Salemme pepper, finely ground 

3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature

1 cup brown sugar, packed

3/4 cup granulated sugar

2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

2 eggs

7 ounces dark chocolate, chopped into chunks
Sift the flour, cocoa, salt baking soda, baking powder, and pepper together into a bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the butter until fluffy, about 5 minutes. Add the sugars and beat again until smooth and fluffy, about 5 minutes more.

Add the eggs one at a time, fully incorporating one before adding the next. Stir in the vanilla.

Add half of the dry ingredients to the mixer bowl and reduce to slowest speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add the remaining dry ingredients.
 With a spatula or wooden spoon, stir in the chocolate chunks.

Press plastic wrap onto the surface of the dough and refrigerate for 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Scoop out dough into golf ball-sized balls and bake for 15 to 17 minutes. Do not overbake! These will burn easily.
Remove from the oven and transfer the cookies to a cooling rack for 15 minutes. Watch out for the oozy chocolate when you bite into the cookie.
Copyright © 2013 150ish. All Rights reserved.
425 East 63rd Street, Suite E7C, New York, NY 10065

Subscribe | Send to a friend | Tell us about your favorites

Sent to <<Email Address>> — why did I get this?
Unsubscribe from this list | Update subscription preferences

Email not displaying correctly? View it in your browser